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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Architecture

Air Date: Week of


CURWOOD: In recent years the notion of sustainable architecture has become as commonplace as compost piles and sidewalk recycling. But commentator Jane Holtz Kay has been watching the eco-architects and green building codes flourish, and she's wondering what it's all sustaining.

HOLTZ KAY: Excuse me if my use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without New England origins are showing. But I am wondering about the true state of sustainability. I am wondering, for instance, if Home Depot's new growth only tree planks and Ford Motor Company's plan for a water collecting roof can really save our planet. One reason for my skepticism is a clipping on my desk of the Sonoran Preserve master plan for Phoenix. It is a postcard-pretty image, cactus to the fore, rocks posed to show their good side. The plan, to set aside 21,000 or so acres of public open space and wildlife habitat, won a major landscape architecture award. And why not praise it? The why not lies in the numbers. For the acres set aside amount to less land than the metropolis loses to development in a scant three years.

Phoenix is not alone in such myopic unsustainability, as Americans gallop across the last chance landscape, shooting 30 percent of global warming's CO2 with their car emissions plus another 30 percent with their building. Consider a recent conference of the Bureau of Land Management, now calling itself the Open Space Agency, where, according to High Country News, a speaker at the Las Vegas Imperial Palace complained that the gambling Mecca is chronically under-golfed. Under-golfed?

Consider older metropolises where poor planning produces free-for-all home and road building, swallowing farm land and wetland. In the hour it takes to listen to this program, roughly 40 acres of such undeveloped land will have gone under the bulldozers and backhoes, gone forever.

Not that all our earnest recycling and water-scrimping showers are futile, but such larger lapses raise the fundamental question of where and how, and yes, whether we should be building anew. Certainly, we should not be scattering mega-subdivisions on our greenfields when 600,000 toxic brownfields await restoration. Nor should we allow the $58 billion car-based transportation budget to split more neighborhoods, spit more carbon, and suck more space. There is no such thing as green sprawl. We need to step beyond our recyclable rugs. We need to look at the world outside our double-glazed windows. Above all, we need to plan to conserve as much as create. If we do not do so, if we merely lounge in smug content behind our airtight doorways, we are no more than environmental aliens, hammer-wielders, building little green islands in a sea of subdivided nature.

CURWOOD: Commentator Jane Holtz Kay is the author of Asphalt Nation.

(Music up and under: Mythos, "Kaleidoscope")

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for reporting on marine issues; the Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the Oak Foundation supporting coverage of marine issues; and the Turner Foundation.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: It's a bird! It's a plane! Naah, just a piece of space junk. And we meet the man who collects it. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: XTC, "Another Satellite")


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood



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